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Sony’s big PlayStation game giveaway is the perfect way to hide a precarious position

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That’s one way to handle Xbox Game Pass

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

You may be wondering why Sony is giving away good games for free. Here’s a thought:

Sony knows you basically can’t buy a PS5 — and that its most exciting new games won’t be out for months even if you could. Sony also knows there’s little it can do about that. It can’t magically fix the global semiconductor shortage or bring an early end to the pandemic that’s caused numerous game delays as developers learn how to work from home.

But Sony does have one way to bolster goodwill at the beginning of this console generation: it can tide over PlayStation fans by giving away a handful of its best games.

On March 1st, Sony started giving away 2016’s Ratchet & Clank with no strings attached — no subscription required, just a free game for you to keep forever for your PS4 or PS5 console.

On April 19th, it’ll start giving away 2017’s Horizon Zero Dawn, too — the Complete Edition, so you’re also getting the Frozen Wilds DLC — plus a big bundle of excellent indie games starting on March 25th, including ABZÛ, Enter the Gungeon, Rez Infinite, Subnautica, and The Witness. Sony’s even throwing in four well-regarded PlayStation VR titles: Astro Bot Rescue Mission, Moss, Thumper, and Paper Beast. None of these titles are shovelware: they’re all great, and Sony has said it’ll keep giving away games through June.

Sony calls this its “Play at Home” program, and it was originally pitched last year as a way to keep gamers home and socially distanced during the pandemic, which... sure. Let’s give it the benefit of the doubt.

But as Epic Games has shown with its Epic Games Store, giving away old games for free is also a great way to kickstart a new gaming platform. Originally a glorified launcher for Fortnite and the abandoned Unreal Tournament successor, EGS brute-forced its way into becoming a bona fide Steam competitor by giving away 749 million copies of games (not a typo) in 2020. Some of those users seem to have stuck around, seeing how they spent $265 million on third-party games last year alone.

While Epic has never said how it can afford to give away thousands of dollars worth of games to any person for free, it probably isn’t hemorrhaging billions of dollars to make it happen. Many of them are older popular titles gamers are already likely to own elsewhere, so it’s not like they’re cannibalizing sales. I’d also be very surprised if Epic doesn’t have special deals with developers based on that (or, perhaps, to only pay when you actually launch and play these games). If Sony sticks to its own titles or ones where it can cut deals, it might be a relatively cheap way to build goodwill.

As we’ve discussed here at The Verge, one of the single most impressive things about the PS5 and Xbox Series X is how well they play last-gen games right now. Both Sony and Microsoft decided to build with backwards compatibility in mind, only with next-gen SSDs for speedier load times and more horsepower to keep framerates high even with PS4 Pro and Xbox One X enhancements applied. Old favorites are worth playing all over again, and it’s a great way to catch up on what you’ve missed.

But that’s only if you’ve got a PS5 and are willing to buy those games. Microsoft may have a more attractive alternative: not only is its Xbox Series X (somewhat) easier to buy, but the company’s true next-gen Xbox keeps getting stronger every month. I mean Xbox Game Pass, the monthly subscription service that lets you play both back catalog titles and brand-new first-party-exclusive games on the Xbox One, Xbox Series consoles, Windows PCs, and even an early cloud gaming service that can beam them to your phone.

Last September, I predicted Sony would price the PS5 and disc-less PS5 Digital Edition at $500 and $400, respectively, because it was Sony’s race to lose. It was the one with a recent track record of hit exclusive games and the one actually making a case for next-gen with next-gen exclusives as well. But while Microsoft did have to delay Halo Infinite, it has since spent a staggering $7.5 billion buying Bethesda explicitly to add future exclusives to the Xbox Game Pass stable.

Last week, Xbox Game Pass subscribers woke up to find nearly every modern Doom, Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Wolfenstein, and Arkane Studios game waiting for them on console, PC, and streaming from the cloud, many of them quickly adding Xbox Series X performance boosts. Anecdotally, a few people have told me they changed their tune on the Xbox Series X after the Bethesda deal was announced. Earlier this month, Xbox Game Pass covered its bases for sports fans with the latest Madden, NBA, and NHL games, too.

At this point in the console cycle, gamers don’t really know which one of the consoles will “win,” or which launch promises will actually pan out. Historically, the company that sold the most consoles in a previous generation has become overconfident, arrogant, full of themselves. Sony expected gamers would pay “599 US dollars” for an overengineered PS3 on the back of its giant enemy crab, after the PS2 was a huge success. When the Xbox 360 became the obvious place for multiplayer gaming and early motion gaming, Microsoft bet its fortunes that customers would buy the Xbox One, a home entertainment hub that ran Windows where they’d shake their bodies in front of a bundled Microsoft Kinect. Much of that vision disappeared a year later, but Microsoft never caught up to Sony’s relentless focus on good, exclusive games for the PS4. (Nintendo had the Wii U. Enough said.)

Now, it’s Sony’s turn again, and gamers might be wondering if Sony has learned the lesson — whether it might manage to break the cycle of arrogant victors, particularly after some of Sony’s “PlayStation exclusives” appeared to have some funny business going on. For its part, Sony has to be wondering how many would-be PS5 buyers might now give up if they manage to find an Xbox Series X or Xbox Series S in stock instead.

But there are signs that Sony’s arrogance might be a thing of the past, that Sony is more self-aware now, and these free games are a huge step in the right direction. I think old Sony — the Sony that insisted on proprietary discs and memory sticks for years — would expect you to pay money to buy these games on the strength of its brand. New Sony is the company that gives you a free copy of Astro’s Playroom with every PS5, one of the best pack-in games ever made.